The Pelagian Captivity Of Evangelicalism—What The Reformers Would Think Of Modern Evangelicalism

1363083_chain_of_time_5Confession time!  I’ve had more and more of a difficult time applying the label of ‘Evangelical’ to myself as of late. (Note: When I use the word ‘Evangelicalism’ I use it to describe the current national-cultural form of American Christianity.)  Even though the Lutherans of the 1500’s embraced the label and could be considered some of the first Evangelicals, I have come to wonder if they would associate with Modern Evangelicalism if they were alive today? If alive today, could the Reformers even identify any remnants of the 16th century Reformation in Evangelicalism today? Mark Noll in his book, America’s God, states that if the Reformers were alive today they would find themselves further removed from modern day Evangelicalism than they were removed from the Catholic Church of the 1500’s. Take a moment and listen below to Michael Horton commenting on Mark Noll’s amazing assessment on Issues, Etc.:

 

[youtube=http://youtu.be/DVWiZw2yfwA]

 

J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, in their introduction to Martin Luther’s book, The Bondage of the Will, make a similar assessment and observation of Protestantism in general,

“With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognized by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about salvation of lost mankind. In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimize and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters?”[1]

So an obvious question in response to these two assessments above would be, where did things drift off course? The Calvinist theologian R.C. Sproul makes the following assessment,

“In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism. He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin. This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This man’s basic thesis was, we don’t need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous. His name: Charles Finney, one of America’s most revered evangelists.” [2]

Sproul goes on to state that Charles Finney, could be classified as the patron saint of 20th century Evangelicalism; a Hall of Famer for Evangelical Christianity in America.[3]

While the precise derailment of the Reformation’s theology within Modern Evangelicalism could be debated, one thing is for sure and that is American Evangelicalism as a whole has taken on the theological flavor of Pelagianism. Simply put, this Pelagian theology teaches that: man is basically good, man can move toward God by his own power without the grace of the Holy Spirit, man can convert himself to God, man can believe the Gospel whole-heartedly, man can obey God’s Law thus meriting forgiveness of sins and eternal life.[4] Quite obviously Charles Finney’s theology of Pelagianism, conditioned faith, elevated the spiritual condition of mankind, downplayed sin, undercut the Holy Spirit and robbed the narrative from God in placing mankind in the starring role. Evangelicalism is now captive to a man-centered Gospel, which is no Gospel at all and plagued by sermons of good advice meant to motivate and inspire the potential ‘self’ (i.e., the old Adam).

In response to this captivity, there has been some encouraging movement in the North American Church. Several years back The Cambridge Declaration was released addressing the erosion of the 16th century Reformation Solas in today’s Evangelical Churches. The popular radio program The White Horse Inn has taken on a five year project in drafting 95 Theses for this modern generation. There has even been the joining of pastors in loosely knit organizations such as The Gospel Coalition. This is an organization that is deeply concerned about the Gospel and also the condition of Evangelicalism today.

[vimeo=http://vimeo.com/26481665]

 

A Baptist friend once told me that during the days of Charles Spurgeon, that the Gospel became the ‘in thing’ among the Christians of the day. He said that it became the ‘in thing’ not because of a special marketing campaign but because it had been absent from the church for so long. While the current condition of Modern Evangelicalism today is something to be drastically concerned about, I am personally cautiously optimistic that there is a rekindling of the Gospel in Evangelicalism.  Take for instance Tullian Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, who hosts a yearly convention in Florida called, Liberate. He stated in last year’s conference invitation,

” I’m ecstatic about the resurgence of interest in the gospel that’s taking place inside the Evangelical church today. The idea that once God saves us his plan isn’t to steer us beyond the gospel, but to move us more deeply into the gospel, is gaining traction in churches of all stripes and denominations. And that’s a great thing. But as far as we’ve come, I’m convinced that God is summoning us to go deeper, to go “higher up and further back”[5]

My hope and prayer for Modern Evangelicalism is that the Gospel would be rediscovered, that the Gospel would once again become the ‘in thing’ and that the church would be liberated from the captivity of Pelagianism. For this we pray… Amen.

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[1] J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, The Bondage of the Will [Revell, 1957], 59-60.

[2] R.C. Sproul, The Pelagian Captivity of the Church (Accessed March 2, 2013)

[3]  Ibid.

[4] Tim Ysteboe, We Believe: Commentary on the Statement of Faith  [Faith and Fellowship, 2010], 55-56

[5] Tullian Tchividjian, Liberate Conference Inviation (Accessed March 2, 2013)

 

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